I Spy

April 1, 2003
Janet Wiens

I spy a museum of espionage tricks, photos and films in a building of bricks; a high-tech look, secret codes, disguises and finishes both new and old.

Throughout history nations have depended on spies to provide information and to attract intelligence resources regarding both their friends and their foes. For all of the real and fictitious spies who are famous—Mata Hari, Nathan Hale and James Bond—there are unknown numbers of men and women who have served their countries both in peacetime and in war. Their stories and the tricks and tools of their trade have now come to life in The International Spy Museum.The 60,000-square-foot facility, which features 20,000-square-feet of exhibits, opened in July 2002, in Washington, DC's historic Penn Quarter across the street from the National Portrait Gallery and within blocks of the MCI Center, the headquarters for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Ford's Theater and the National Mall. The museum is the largest collection of international espionage artifacts ever placed on public display.According to Patrick Gallagher, principal of Gallagher & Associates, which led the design team, finding the right home for the museum was both a challenge and an opportunity. "We needed to create a new museum that would capture attention in a city full of cultural offerings. The site had to be close to the action in an area where there's not a lot of available space."Gallagher says that the pro forma for the museum indicated that it must be within walking distance of other institutions and that a site with character was critical. It is important to note that the museum is neither a not-for-profit nor free to enter, so providing an extraordinary experience from start to finish was critical to meet financial operating requirements.The site solution was found in five historic buildings constructed between 1875 and 1892. The historic character of the buildings was retained on the exterior and still appears externally as a collection of five separate structures. On the inside, visitors will find a seamless experience that is provided through the creation of an internal corridor, vertical circulation and careful planning."We defined the visitor experience first and then created the building program," says Gallagher. "The overall focus centers around the issue of what it would be like to be a spy. Visitors are allowed and encouraged to experience this premise both as individuals and as members of their group (groups of up to 40 persons at a time enter the museum's core)." The museum has four major business centers, each with its own distinct function and performance requirements: the museum itself, food service, retail and special events spaces. The journey through the museum walks visitors through the life and experiences of a spy. While not all areas of the museum are overtly themed, there are references to the museum's mission in all areas.Visitors experience a wealth of both information and experiences during a visit to the museum. They can adopt a cover, break a code, identify disguised spies and even become surveillance subjects during their visit. The goal is to immerse individuals as much as possible into the undercover life of a spy.After entering the museum, where patrons are greeted by a series of large-scale photographs and displays depicting the world of spying, visitors are taken via elevator to the museum's third floor, resulting in a top-down journey through the museum. In the Briefing Room or theater, which will seat 60 to 65, an introductory film paves the way for what is to come.Numerous materials and design elements blend in all museum spaces to create a striking presentation. The combinations that are experienced—varied ceilings, flooring, lighting, exhibit displays, colors and materials—could be overwhelming in some cases. But here, it all flows together very well based on both the design treatment and the connection to the many varied spaces.The design team used historic photographs, film, video and interactive displays throughout the exhibits to showcase the relevant aspects of each individual exhibit to visitors including:
* Spy School:
An orientation to spying that includes more than 200 espionage devices and a chance for visitors to change their identity or enhance their observation skills. * The Secret History Of History: From George Washington to the role of women in spying and spying in the early years of the Soviet Union, it's all here. The exhibit provides a wealth of information about the development of this secret service.
* Spies Among Us:
This section takes a look at espionage through World War II, and highlights real-life spy stories including the work of Julia Child, who processed classified documents for the OSS before becoming a world-famous chef, and Josephine Baker, a popular singer of the time and a worker for the French Resistance.
* War Of The Spies:
This section covers spies and spying from the start of the Cold War until current times, including the cat-and-mouse game between spies like Aldrich Ames and their spy hunters. Fictional spies and their agencies, such as James Bond and Maxwell Smart, are featured along with the consumer products that they helped to inspire.
* The 21st Centuy:
Intelligence experts track current events and answer questions in this portion that addresses the challenges faced by intelligence professionals in our world today."Museum patrons will find a variety of experiences in the museum's retail sections and restaurants as they did throughout the museum," says Steve McGowan, creative director/project designer for FRCH Design Worldwide, the firm responsible for the project's retail design. "All spaces are an extension of the exhibits. Again, it's a very seamless experience."Spy Library sells CDs, maps and books. Visitors will find all the tools they need to become a spy in Trade Craft, and True Spy Collectibles sells merchandise that is actually used in the field. Last, but not least, is Spy Disguise, where items for changing or transforming one's identity can be purchased. The retail area features both static and rolling display carts, which enables retail personnel to easily reconfigure portions of the space if desired. "True Spy Collectibles is probably the greatest focal point within the retail space," McGowan says. "We created a central tower of suspended glass and cabling that surrounds a plexi map-of-the-world cylinder that is topped by a ceiling of glass." The hero merchandise that is displayed is surrounded by LED lighting and exhibited within the center core. The 6,000-square-foot Zola Restaurant is very modern and sophisticated. The references to spying in this case are very subtle, such as portals for surveillance. Seating for 150 is available in both tables and banquettes. Rich wood tables and flooring blend nicely with the colors used on the patterned seating for tables and the inset carpet. As in other museum areas including the fixturing and cashwrap, polished stainless steel or brushed metal was used as a tie to a high-tech look. A deliberate use of juxtaposing materials contrasts the old with the new. The restaurant also handles catering for special events and private functions.Spy City Café is more casual and playful and is geared toward a quicker dining experience. Photographs of spy-related sites in Washington, DC, adorn the walls.The International Spy Museum has it all from buttonhole cameras, Enigma machines, two-way mirrors and spy training videos and lipstick pistols. The wealth of the collection is displayed within a vibrant environment that is enhanced through the use of technology, lighting, circulation and varied materials and design details. Add the museum to your list the next time you visit Washington, DC. You won't be disappointed.

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